Mike Ulmer has worked for seven news organizations including the National Post and, most recently, the Toronto Sun. Mike has written about the Leafs for 10 years and wrote Captains, a book about the club's greatest leaders.
September 7, 2006
(TORONTO) -- There is a story that, if pressed, Greg Gilbert will share.
The first year coach of the Toronto Marlies was playing for the New York Islanders at the tail end of their streak of Cups. A new group of stars from Alberta was in assent and the Isles, while still potent, were beginning to fray with age.
And then, stunningly in the spring of 1982, the Islanders won their fourth Stanley Cup. On their way out of the arena, the Oilers peeked inside the Isles dressing room to find a muted celebration.
|Greg Gilbert learned from Mike Keenan and Al Arbour.|
"Wayne Gretzky and the rest of those guys walked by our dressing room and saw all our guys in ice bags and on the floor, beaten up and bruised," Gilbert recalled. "To win a championship at any level, your will power has to exceed the opponent. You have to be willing to pay the price more than the person you are playing."
The lesson took. The following spring, the Oilers brushed the Islanders aside in five games to begin their dynasty.
And that, in a nutshell, is the moral Gilbert will impart on the Leafs prospects, on the ice, in practice and on the bus that dominates life in the American Hockey League.
It's a lesson the 44-year-old Gilbert, long ago picked up from a succession of coaches. Gilbert broke into the league with Islanders legend Al Arbour and then became a trusted have-team-will travel component for Mike Keenan. He played for Keenan in Chicago then won his third Cup with Keenan in 1993-94 with the New York Rangers. Gilbert followed Keenan to St. Louis, where he ended his 15-year-NHL career in 1995-96. Nine of those seasons involved playing for Keenan
"I think I had some good leadership qualities. I was more focused on preparing myself to do the best job I could do, to be an asset not a liability on the ice," Gilbert said. "If you don't score much and you get two or three goals in a week, your mind changes. That's not the way it is. You stick with what you do best."
He has no one coaching inspiration.
"I've taken a fair amount from both Mike and Al (Arbour)," Gilbert said. "Mike had his different ways of motivating players and teaching players and so did Al. I was very fortunate playing for both those guys and watching the ways they handle the teams and get their messages across. "
The Marlies begin their rookie tournament Friday at Ricoh Coliseum. The tournament will run until next Tuesday, September 12. Among the Maple Leafs performing at the camp, which is open to the public, are blue chip goaltending prospect Justin Pogge and last year's first round draft choice, Czech centre Jiri Tlusty.
Gilbert will study the Leafs rookies the same way he observed the exceptional athletes he played with.
"I could list hundreds, Bryan Trottier, Mike Bossy, Mark Messier, Kevin Lowe, Craig MacTavish, Dirk Graham, and Troy Murray in Chicago. I played with Wayne Gretzky in St. Louis, Al MacInnis. You can go right down the list and notice the way these players prepared and helped others prepare."
After retiring as a player, Gilbert spent four years coaching the Worcester Ice Cats in the American League before leaving for Calgary where he would work as an assistant and then head coach. Fired after less than two seasons as head man of the Flames, Gilbert posted two winning records with the OHL's Mississauga Ice Dogs. John Ferguson, who worked with Gilbert as the general manager of the Ice Cats and assistant GM of the St. Louis Blues, kept in touch and hired him Gilbert when Paul Maurice graduated to the Maple Leafs' bench.
From the last 25 years, Gilbert has gleaned the trick to coaching; you can't push the right buttons until you find them first.
"You have to find a way to get the energy. That's one of the biggest challenges for a coach, because every player is an individual. Some need a kick in the backside, some need to be stroked. Part of the coach's job is to find which buttons work for each individual, which ones you can push. That's the biggest challenge."
The goal is toughness and resiliency, the kind the young Islanders observed when they peered into a dressing room, looking for a party.
"If you do what the Islanders did, then you give yourself the best opportunity to succeed. That's what the Leaf organization is instilling in these players and the players at the National League level. We have a strong will and we're going to overcome challenges and be the best we can be."